Sunday, August 5, 2012

Fra Lippo Lippi

Fra Lippo Lippi

The Poem
“Fra Lippo Lippi” is a long poem in blank verse. It is one of Robert Browning’s numerous dramatic
monologues, written in phrases and segments, which assume periodic unwritten questions and responses from

the listener. The speaker in this poem is a historical character, Fra Lippo Lippi, who was a monk and a painter
in fifteenth century Florence. Taking his point of departure from an incident described by the Italian painter
and biographer Giorgio Vasari in The Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors
(1550, 1568), Browning imagines how Fra Lippo Lippi might have seen his own life and his art.
The setting of “Fra Lippo Lippi” is an alley in Florence. The time is midnight. The watchmen on their rounds
have just stopped a suspicious character slipping through the shadows. As the poem begins, the monk
identifies himself and then explains that he is staying with a member of the powerful Medici family. Giving
the men some money with which to drink to his health, the monk then settles down with their leader, who
obviously wants to hear the full story.
The poem is divided into three sections. In the first, Fra Lippo Lippi explains that his patron has had him shut
up for three weeks, so that the monk would paint instead of drinking or carousing. On this spring night,
however, the temptation was too much, and Fra Lippo Lippi sneaked out a window to have some fun. When
the watch caught him, he was trying to get back to his patron’s dwelling before his absence was noticed.
To his new friend, who appears sympathetic but is obviously somewhat puzzled by this monk’s behavior, Fra
Lippo Lippi explains that he does not feel himself bound by monastic vows, since he had no choice about
becoming a monk; he had been left with the Carmelites when he was only eight years old. Later, when it was
realized that the boy had artistic talent, the prior decided to make him their official painter. From the time he
completed his first painting on the wall of the cloister, however, Fra Lippo Lippi has been criticized for
making his works too realistic.
In the second section of the poem, the monk continues his argument for realism, insisting that instead of
turning humanity’s attention away from God, his creations reveal the glories of God’s creation to people
who might not otherwise have noticed them. He admits, however, that there are practical disadvantages to his
kind of painting; one of his paintings has been defaced by the pious, who have scratched off the faces of three
evil characters tormenting a saint.
In the third section, the monk fears that he has been too outspoken, and he begs the captain not to report him.
Then, after describing a great painting that he will complete in six months, the monk notices that dawn is
approaching, shakes hands with his listener, and hurries toward his lodging.
Forms and Devices
Browning’s dramatic monologues are standard selections in interpretive reading competitions because all of
Fra Lippo Lippi 1
them are essentially one-actor plays. The poet describes the setting of his drama, indicates the appearance of
his characters, gives stage directions, including entrances and exits, and suggests the speeches of the silent
actors, all through the words of his protagonist.
For example, at the beginning of the poem, while he is making his explanation to the watch, Fra Lippo Lippi
mentions the time, midnight, and the setting, an alley in the red-light district. Later, he speaks of the man who
was holding him as having a face like Judas; in contrast, the captain of the guard has a “twinkle” in his eye.
Browning’s stage directions are also woven skillfully into the monologue. For example, again at the
beginning of the poem, by telling the men what not to do, not to push their torches so close to his face, not to
hold him by the neck, the monk is actually describing what they are doing. When Fra Lippo Lippi tells the
captain to send his men for a drink, it is assumed that they exit. A few lines later, when the monk says, “Let’s
sit and set things straight now,” it can be assumed that the two men do so. At the end of the poem, Fra Lippo
Lippi’s exit is just as clearly outlined. He shakes hands with the captain, refuses his offer of a light, and then,
seeing the sky turning, exclaims and hastens offstage.
Through Fra Lippo Lippi’s responses, even through his pauses, Browning makes the suppressed speeches of
others as clear as if they had been spoken. For example, when the monk says, “Yes, I’m the painter, since
you style me so,” it is evident that the captain has said something like, “Oh, I know your name, you are the
painter, aren’t you?” In lines 76 and 79, a more complicated dialogue is suggested. Shaking his head in
disapproval, the captain has pointed out that the painter is a monk, while still reassuring him that he will not
report him to his Medici patron. It is this comment from the captain that causes Fra Lippo Lippi to relate his
life story.
By using interjections and colloquialisms, parenthetical comments and incomplete sentences, even snatches of
a popular song, in “Fra Lippo Lippi” Browning captures the flavor of casual speech. This effect, however, is
the result of painstaking artistry, for the entire poem is constructed in the most skillfully crafted blank verse,
worthy of Browning’s Elizabethan predecessors in dramatic writing.
Themes and Meanings
“Fra Lippo Lippi” explains not only what Browning believed to be his subject’s view of the purpose of
painting, but also the poet’s own beliefs about the function of poetry. Both painter and poet have the power of
imagination. The question is what the relationship should be between the real world about them and the ideal
worlds that they can imagine.
To the Greek artists, the human form was just a starting point, from which the ideal could be constructed. It is
this attitude that is shared by the prior and his learned colleagues, who believe that Fra Lippo Lippi’s figures
are too lifelike, that by painting so realistically the painter will cause his viewers to pay too much attention to
human bodies and therefore to become distracted from their proper concern, their souls. Bodies are perishable;
souls are not.
Both Browning and Fra Lippo Lippi disagree with this point of view. The simple monks respond properly to
the painter’s work. They enjoy seeing people they know; unlike the prior, they take a natural joy in life. Fra
Lippo Lippi argues that beauty cannot diminish piety. In lines 217 to 221, he explains that by responding to
the beauty of God’s creation, human beings are led to thank God and thus to be aware of the souls within
themselves. At the end of the section, Fra Lippo Lippi admits that he wonders whether he or the Church is
right, but when he paints, he insists, he always remembers the God of Genesis, creating Eve in the Garden of
Eden. That flesh that was made by God cannot be evil.
Forms and Devices 2
In the second section, Fra Lippo Lippi advances a further argument. Realistic paintings actually draw the
attention of human beings to real-life beauty that they might otherwise ignore, “things we have passed/
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see.” In this way, too, the artist causes human beings to praise their
creator.
Thus, even though he has thought deeply about what his clerical superiors say with such certainty, Fra Lippo
Lippi is convinced that his kind of art is divinely inspired. His own certainty is summed up in the lengthy
description of a forthcoming painting, in which imagined beings will appear, such as God, the Madonna and
Child, and various saints, but in which there will also be a lovely young saint modeled on the prior’s niece, a
saint who will defend the presence of Fra Lippo Lippi in the work because, she says, he is responsible for
creating all the rest.
The central theme of “Fra Lippo Lippi,” then, is that the function of painting should be to capture the actual
beauty of God’s creation and, by doing so, to reveal the invisible spiritual beauty of his creatures. In his
poetry, Browning chose to do the same thing. As Fra Lippo Lippi speaks to his sympathetic listener, he
becomes more than a runaway monk in a frayed robe, trapped by the watch in an unsavory area of his city; he
is revealed as a dedicated artist and as a man of spiritual grandeur.